Ask Mint | Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin: enriching spiritual life

Ask Mint | Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin: enriching spiritual life
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First Published: Mon, May 26 2008. 12 02 AM IST

V.R. Narayanaswami
V.R. Narayanaswami
Updated: Mon, May 26 2008. 12 02 AM IST
The Book of Genesis tells us that God created Adam and Eve and then asked them “to be fruitful and multiply”. But that raises the question; in which language did God speak to them?
V.R. Narayanaswami
Since Adam had just been created and had not yet begun naming things, there was no human language formed yet. One possible answer is that God said, “Let there be language,” and there was language. What language was it? Which human language today can we use to speak to God? Is there something called a divine language?
The first language that comes to mind here is Sanskrit. In the Bhagvad Gita, we see Krishna and Arjun conversing in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is widely used in all parts of India in the chanting of mantras and various incantations. Some religious leaders are convinced that when one divinity encounters another, they speak in Sanskrit.
But not everybody accepts this role of Sanskrit. The issue today has taken on political colours. In some states, the government encourages the use of the vernacular in temple rituals. Tamil has an equally rich heritage of devotional literature that goes back several millennia. The government at Chennai is taking steps to introduce and encourage the use of Tamil in temple rituals.
Next to Sanskrit as a language of worship is Arabic. The Islamic world has accepted it as the language of prayer, for it is the language in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet over a period of 23 years. The Quran is considered to be literally the Word of God.
Only about 10-15% of the world’s Muslims speak Arabic as their native language. But every Muslim tries to learn the basics of Arabic to be able to join in the prayer.
There are people in Kerala who try to communicate with God in Syriac, an Aramaic language, locally known as Suriyani. This has given them the name of Syrian Christians. Syriac was the language used by early missionaries to spread the message of Christ over Asia. Scholars believe that Christ principally spoke Aramaic, with a mixture of Hebrew and Greek. One of the last sayings of Christ speaking from the cross, recorded in two of the gospels, is “Eli eli lema sabachthani” translated as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and this is Aramaic.
Even today it is exciting to listen to the sonorous renditions of the liturgy in Malayalam with an intonation borrowed from Aramaic-Syriac. You can discern echoes of Antioch and Constantinople in the chants.
Moving farther west, we come to Latin, another language to offer prayers in. There are many parallels between Latin and Sanskrit. Both are ancient languages, and both are admittedly “dead languages” in the technical sense of the term. Both languages belong to the Indo-European family, but belong to two different branches. Latin is the official language of the Vatican, and of the Roman Catholic church.
Until the end of the 17th century, Latin remained the language of scholarly discourse. Many great English thinkers and scientists chose to write their major works in Latin. Among them were Francis Bacon, litterateur and philosopher, and Isaac Newton, the physicist. Like Sanskrit, which gave rise to the several regional languages of modern India, Latin lives in the Romance languages of Europe, which comprise Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian and Catalan.
The influence of Latin on English and other European languages can be perceived in two aspects. One is the use of Latin phrases and mottoes in their original form. The other is the use of translations of Latin words and phrases. Here are some of my favourites.
When first I came across the phrase “mutatis mutandis”, I fell in love with it. I created contexts in which I could use it. The listeners, I could see, were impressed. “Mea culpa”, I exclaimed when I did something wrong; and did not fail to add “peccavi”, which means “I have sinned.”
Peccavi is a word to remember, because it gave occasion for an excellent pun. When the British under Sir Charles Napier conquered the province of Sindh in 1843, he sent a cryptic, one-word message to headquarters, which said, “Peccavi”. Napier was under orders not to annex Sindh. So the word could mean both “I have Sindh” and “I have sinned.”
I like the sound of in flagrante delicto, caught in the very act of committing an offence. It is used in its Latin form and has not been translated. The reference is to a crime that is burning.
Among the translated Latin expressions used widely in English are “other things being equal” (ceteris paribus), “the die is cast” (alea iacta est), “with a grain of salt” (cum grano salis), “speaks for itself” (res ipsa loquitur). Latin is preferred in the coining of mottoes of universities and other bodies. The US Marines have the slogan “Semper fidelis” (always faithful). The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for ”Faster, Higher, Stronger”.
A rather mischievous use of Latin can be seen in the Republican senator Barry Goldwater’s slogan “Illegitimi non carborundum”. Goldwater had put up this sign in his office. Asked about its meaning, he said it means “Let not the illegitimate fellows (a stronger word was used here) grind you down.”
We still haven’t found out which language is God’s own language. But Sanskrit, Arabic and Latin are major languages of the world that enrich the spiritual life of humankind.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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First Published: Mon, May 26 2008. 12 02 AM IST
More Topics: Language | Sanskrit | Arabic | Suriyani | Latin |